Skincare Problem-Solving: Sunscreen

Someone close to me has gotten skin cancer three times now.  They used to suntan a lot as a child, and it’s come to haunt them later in life.  They’re more diligent about sun protection now.

So I was stunned to find out they didn’t wear sunscreen on their forehead– the most recent place they had gotten skin cancer.  “Why not?” I asked in horror.

“It stings,” they complained.  “I sweat on my forehead and it gets in my eyes and it stings.”

I get it.  Sunscreen is one of the most potent tools in skincare– used properly, it prevents signs of aging, it protects you from cancer, and the right sunscreens can even make your skin softer and smoother.  But it’s really, really hard to find the right sunscreens.  They smell bad, or they leave unsightly white streaks, or they sting, or they make you break out.

I am here to help.  I hope the information in this little troubleshooting guide can help at least one person like it did that person close to me: I have now found them a sunscreen that solves their discomfort issues.  Now they are actually protecting themselves.

Problem: Sunscreen gets in my eyes and it stings.

Solution: Zinc oxide sunscreen with silica or isododecane.   A couple of things could be causing your issue, so try to tackle all of them at once.  Synthetic/chemical sunscreen ingredients (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, ecamsule) often sting when they get into the eye, so try a broad-spectrum mineral sunscreen instead.  Silica and isododecane are both absorbent ingredients, so if you sweat extra on your forehead,

Problem: I hate the smell of sunscreen.

Solution: Zinc oxide sunscreen with antioxidants.  That smell you’re thinking of is synthetic sunscreen actives.  If you get a sunscreen made with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide instead, it’ll barely smell like anything.  Especially if it’s got antioxidants added– I actually find those often make a sunscreen smell good.  One of my favorite sunscreens is Paula’s Choice Resist Super-Light Wrinkle Defense SPF 30 ($32 not on sale, but honestly, Paula’s Choice is always running a sale, wait until then).   It’s full of antioxidants, it smells nice despite being fragrance-free, and it’s zinc-oxide based.  It’s one of exactly two sunscreens I’ve tried that doesn’t break my face out.  It’s very slightly orange on my skin tone, but little enough that no one really notices.

Paula’s Choice offers samples of it for $1, and keep in mind that if you use my referral link you get $10 off your first order of $15 or more.

Problem: Sunscreen makes me break out / irritates my skin.

Solution: Zinc oxide sunscreen with anti-irritants.  Some people find chemical sunscreen ingredients  sensitizing.  Zinc oxide, on the other hand, may have an anti-irritant effect.  There are a lot of good anti-irritants you can look for in sunscreen: some of the best common ones are allantoin, beta glucan, superoxide dismutase, and licorice extract.  The other sunscreen that doesn’t break me out is Paula’s Choice Calm Redness Relief SPF 30 Moisturizer ($28), and I find it slightly more soothing to irritated skin than the Super-Light Wrinkle Defense, if not as nice-smelling.  People give the dry skin version rave reviews too, though it’s exactly the same formula as their Skin Recovery Daily Moisturizing Lotion, so I find it incredibly deceptive to market them as different products.  (At least those two products are the same price, though.  Earth Sourced Perfectly Natural Cleansing Gel and the PC4Men Face Wash are exactly the same formula, and the PC4Men one costs 4 cents less per ounce.  Infuriating.)

Problem: Sunscreen makes me look pasty, chalky, and extra-white.

Solution: Chemical sunscreen, or tinted mineral sunscreen.  Chemical sunscreens dry clear, unlike their mineral counterparts, which is the main reason they’re so popular.  No white cast.  If your skin’s sensitive to chemical sunscreens, you can try mineral sunscreens that have been tinted: unfortunately, if you’re darker-skinned, no one seems to want to make tinted sunscreens for you, which I find really upsetting. Luckily, there is an (expensive) solution!  If you want to go for the tinted mineral sunscreen and your skin is a deeper tone (or, for that matter, if you just want to tint a sunscreen you already like), CoverFX offers Custom Cover Drops you can drop in to make the color match better.

Problem: I tried wearing sunscreen, but I’m still freckling.

Solution: Zinc oxide sunscreen.  Try a mineral-based sunscreen with a higher percentage of zinc oxide.  I haven’t been able to find scientific support for this one, so take it with that grain of salt, but the dermatologists I’ve been to and Paula’s Choice both think that mineral-based sunscreens are better at preventing brown spots.

Problem: I exercise a lot!  I want sunscreen that’s waterproof and good for my sensitive skin.

Solution: If you want a really, really waterproof sunscreen, try EltaMD UV Pure Broad-Spectrum SPF 47.  I wore it swimming for an hour, it was still on when I got out, and I could not wash it off.  It was honestly kind of disturbing!   If you just want something water-resistant, I was reasonably fond of Replenix Sheer Physical Sunscreen SPF 50+.  Both are expensive sunscreens, but the highest quality you can get.  Any of these should work great if your skin is less finicky than mine (extra sensitive, extra sun-sensitive, prone to breakouts).

Problem: I prefer spray sunscreen, but I know most spray sunscreens are full of denatured alcohol.  Help!

Solution: Replenix Sheer Physical Sunscreen SPF 50+ is a mineral-based sunscreen I like.  KINeSYS also offers well-reviewed alcohol-free SPF 30 spray chemical sunscreens that I haven’t tried, including some fragrance-free ones.

I tried the one from Paula’s Choice, but honestly, it’s one of my least favorite Paula’s Choice products.  It’s got a greasy feel until it soaks in.  It does make your skin feel super-soft once it’s soaked in, though.


Additional Sunscreen Tips

Wear more sunscreen than you think you have to.  Apparently, most people apply less than half the amount of sunscreen they need to fully protect them!  Especially if it’s powder sunscreen. SPF ratings are generated by applying 2.0 mg per square centimeter, so you should be putting on that much; putting on more won’t help you.

…how do I measure 2.0 mg per square centimeter?  FutureDerm says that equates to using 1/4 teaspoon twice per day.  Paula’s Choice says to apply a nickel or quarter size amount to your face (they say that’s equivalent to 1/4 teaspoon), and to apply that same amount to your neck.

Car windows probably won’t protect you: wear sunscreen on your left arm if you drive.  Windows protect you from the UVB rays that sunburn you: however, UVA rays can get through unless the windows are made UV-shielding glass.  In particular, car windshields usually protect you against UVA rays: however, the side windows usually do not.  I learned this through troubleshooting mysterious freckles that appeared on my arm.

Relatedly: not all sunscreens protect you against UVA rays.  Look for sunscreens that contain zinc oxide, avobenzone, ecamsule, titanium dioxide, and/or oxybenzone. SPF doesn’t give you the information you need on that count: it measures UVB protection, but not UVA protection.

Avoid sunscreen that contains a lot of ethyl alcohol / alcohol denat.  That means avoid the vast majority of spray sunscreen, unfortunately.  They provide a nice cooling sensation to the skin, but they’re terrible for it.

Generally, look for sunscreens that are full of antioxidants.  In particular, Vitamin C and Vitamin E have been clinically proven to vastly increase the amount of sun protection you get from sunscreen.  Most consumers don’t know that, which is a shame, because it means sunscreens with antioxidants mixed in are not that common.


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